Image (c) BBC 2002
Over the last couple of days I have watched the 2002 BBC adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. I've always admired George Eliot, and always regarded Middlemarch as probably the greatest English novel of the Victorian era. I've read others of her works from time to time but never Daniel Deronda. In fact I had hardly heard of it. So finding this DVD was a little like a Shakespeare afficionado never being familiar with Hamlet, before stumbling onto it via a TV adaptation. Shame on me.
The principal female character, Gwendolyn is very reminiscent of Middlemarch's Rosamond. Some of the themes of the book also echo those of Middlemarch: Spirtual wealth vs material wealth; the nature of love; great love thwarted by circumstance and the machinations of others; class; and, pre-eminently, the ability of women to live lives uncontolled by men. Daniel Deronda includes also, as a major theme, the relationship of Jews and Gentiles and it's no wonder the book was controversial when published in 1876. The production was up to the usual standard the BBC manages when making films about people in frock coats who drive about in coaches and four. The casting was superb, direction crisp, lighting and cinematography flawless. It was all very decorative and entertaining in a highbrow sort of way, but there was something more. I found myself deeply moved by the film: so moved that I have found the novel and started reading it.
The novel ends with the course of true love thwarted. Daniel and Gwendolyn have an instant, deep and passionate rapport. They are, to use an overworked cliche, soulmates. Of course, there would be no story if that was that. To maintain the narrative tension they can't be together. They spend 768 pages (0r 210 minutes, depending on your choice of medium) working through the cruel viscissitudes that keep them apart, and then, when they are finally unencumbered, Daniel goes and marries the beautiful, worthy but somehow rather bland Mira and heads off to Palestine to further the cause of Zionism. Gwendolyn, who begins the novel as a fascinating but spoiled and self centred young woman, ends it by loving Daniel enough to relinquish him to what she knows to be his destiny. Daniel discovers himself enough to be able to be master of his own fate. And so does Gwendolyn. At the end of the novel she does not need a man - husband, father or brother - to define her identity for her and she is in charge of her own life.
I think this is what moved me. That George Eliot was courageous enough to abandon novelistic convention and show that real growth and real peace came from self knowledge and not from acquisition - whether of things or of people. At the end of the novel both Daniel and Gwendolyn are seen as whole people both of whom are of some emotional and spiritual stature. Like their creator I suppose, who risked her considerable reputation to present to Victorian England a hero who doesn't get the girl in the end and, to boot, has the audacity to be Jewish. I'm only part way through, but I may yet have to revise my opinion of the greatest English novel of the Victorian period.